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On the Front Line of Teaching ‘Grit:’ The Battle to Stop Students from Quitting

Grit, a term that emerged single-handedly from the work of University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, became an instant refresher for the argument that character education and non-cognitive skills have a place in education.

But just as quickly as the term was popularized did it begin to receive criticism. Some argued that the grit phenomenon "romanticizes hardship" and distracts from what poor students really need to succeed. Others have argued against fully buying into the idea without sufficient research that proves it actually improves student achievement. Duckworth herself criticized the education community for using her research to promote high-stakes character assessment in this New York Times op-ed.

However, whether you prefer to use the recently-popular term "grit" or prefer more old-fashioned terms like "perseverance" and "commitment," it doesn’t change the fact that helping students to continue trying despite being presented with challenges and difficulties will help them succeed. This is according to Matthew Pietrafetta, founder of the test preparation and tutoring center Academic Approach. Pietrafetta has been helping students by not only offering one-on-one tutoring services, but by also working directly with school leaders and faculty to provide instructional support for school-wide student success.

For Pietrafetta, "teaching grit" can be defined as figuring out how to coach students through difficult moments in learning—moments that every student will encounter regardless of their ability or learning style.

And unlike many, Pietrafetta doesn't believe this is anything new but rather something that educators inherently work with all the time.

"Whether you know it or not as an educator—you're involved in coaching around mindset, around grit, around resilience," Pietrafetta says.

Now, he says, it's important to focus on how educators are doing this by asking questions like: "How do educators provide opportunities for students to learn to have tools to show growth mindset, show resilience, show grit? How do we teach students to receive information in that moment and react with growth mindset rather than statically?"

Finding the answer to these questions can be done by delving deeper into analysis of student work, especially on tests, to analyze their behavior and see how this analysis can be used to help them improve.

Simplified, Pietrafetta says, a student will always react to lower than anticipated achievement based on one of two mindsets, as defined by the work of psychologist Carol Dweck.

Static Mindset: "Oh gosh, that's who I am, I'll always and forever always be that."

Growth Mindset: "That's interesting, I know I can do better than that, what do I need to improve? Can we go look at that math section? . . . Can you help me?"

Figuring out which mindset a student has is critical to helping students succeed. For students with a static mindset, it's critical to figure out how to get them to stop quitting and keep trying—to be "gritty."

Pietrafetta offers two examples of ways to effectively determine where a student stands.

One way, he says, is by taking a look at their respective "quit rate."

A quit rate is found by analyzing how many times a student got to a problem and simply quit.

Another way to assess student mindset is by looking for the use of annotation strategies by students who have encountered complicated reading test problems.

"When a student starts a reading section and they have passages that have a lot of text complexity . . . you can look through the text booklets and you can see where students either annotated the passages . . . to break down a complex text and make it accessible and where they didn't, where they just quit," Pietrafetta says.

By holding students accountable for these behaviors, Pietrafetta believes this is how students can be successfully coached to be "gritty"—or whatever you want to call it.

"If you hold students accountable for academic behaviors than you can measure those things which are less abstract [and] you can start to measure the growth in those behaviors," he says.

This can be used to assess both individual students or entire school cultures, as Pietrafetta and his organization do.

By starting here, Pietrafetta says leaders "can look at student behaviors at standardized tests and get certain mindset factors [to] start to take those on."

But while looking at student behaviors and helping them to learn perseverance is important, simply defining them as individuals who are with or without grit might be detrimental to the cause.

This is made evident by Dr. Lionel Allen, Jr., Vice President of School Operations and Chief Academic Officer of Urban Prep Academies. Urban Prep Academies is a partner of Academic Approach and has made national news for its 100 percent college acceptance rate.

Not only are Urban Prep Academies' students college-bound, they're also students who already possess qualities like grit.

"Our students are already survivors . . . they already have grit. The key is to try to work with our students and try to get them to leverage those qualities that they already possess in a way that will lead to academic success," Allen says.

Part of this is done by partnering with experts like those at Academic Approach, and part of it is done by not focusing on what students lack and instead focusing on what each one "brings to the table."

"If you're not addressing those issues and creating an environment where they're able to manage . . . stressors, then they'll never be able to fully engage in" becoming better readers, writers and math students, Allen says.

As Pietrafetta says, a critical component to teaching students grit should be encouraging them to look at their life experiences as ways they have possessed grit in the past.

If they can "[l]ook at parts of their lives where they've been really 'gritty'" than they can understand that they have the potential to believe in themselves to push themselves to learn.

Together, thought leaders like Pietrafetta are the faces of the front line of cultivating grit—and they'll continue to do so as the divided education community picks a side.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor

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